Starry Starry Nights

I woke dying for the loo. Rubbing the sleep out of my eyes I looked up and saw a satellite whizzing by. Had we landed in the middle of our starry galaxy? I pinched myself just to make sure we were still here. Scattered across the blue abyss were billions upon billions of stars like we had never seen before. We were buzzing with excitement. Finally we had arrived in star county, San Pedro de Atacama. A spark of magic seems to fill the air and everyone seemed dazzled by their starry surroundings. The place was alive with people from all walks of life. Gypsies, hippies, Bolivianos, German tourists and locals fill the streets at night, all gathered here to gaze in wonder at the beings above.

We hopped out of our bus and scanned our surroundings. Had we landed in Tatawin, the Star Wars city? Dusty roads were lined with mud huts and straw. No red brick or cement in site. We gathered our things and made our way to our hostel where we were greeted by a rather friendly and ‘free spirited’ Argentinian. ‘Welcome’ she beamed, as if knowing something we should know. ‘Have you made a reservation?’ We checked in and proceeded to ask her questions about the place. ‘Where is there a place to get a good bite to eat?’ and – most importantly – ‘Where can we book an astrology tour’? We had done our research and were eager to peer through some telescopes and gaze in wonder at what our distant planets had to offer. Why not travel beyond South America for a bit? After gathering some vital information, we made our way to our rather cramped and smelly dorm room. It looked like we were sharing with three East End London geezers, who were ‘er for a bit of a cheeky oliday with the lads innit’. They had rented a camper and drove from Peru to Atacama (no small feat considering they had to go over the Andes mountains). One mentioned to me that they had driven to the base of the still active Licancabur Volcano which was 5900 meters above sea level. One of them apparently passed out due to the lack of oxygen in the air (and smoking too much of the giggle twigg no doubt).

Our hostel had all sorts of moon and hippie paraphernalia. Sun god paintings, moon drawings and spacey planets warped by spacetime. All very nice and fluffy – but someone forgot to add a heater in the place! It was near freezing yet the living room had no windows or doors. Clearly being out in space for too long had made the owners forget their own rather un-ethereal bodies! We dropped off our stuff, booked ‘a night with the stars’ astrology tour and headed out into town for a bite to eat. Our Argentine mentioned a place that did good sushi. As we were in the desert – with no sea in sight – we thought, lets try it out for a bit of a laugh. Sushi in desert, the Japanese can be proud. And, to our surprise, it wasn’t half bad!

The next day we set about exploring what the town had to offer. We hadn’t slept that well as the English guys had to wake up in the middle of the night to do an early morning tour. Feeling all groggy we sat down and had breakfast in the industrial freezer, and, as such, all our condiments were frozen solid. Not a great way to start the day but we thought we could get some grub from the local market. The town didn’t have much to offer – other than the endless amount of tour guide operators all promising the same thing – a 3-day trip to the Uyuni salt flats. Fem (as studious as ever) had already found a few recommended companies online. We entertained the local bullshitters for a while, but eventually settled on a rather humble and unassuming company – White and Green tours. Looked like we would be spending a few nights in altitudes up to 6200 meters! Yikes!

That night, the bus picked us up promptly at 9pm. We were on our way to an observation post 20kms away from the town. I could scream with delight. Finally we were getting to see and learn about our sky, about its mystery and legends. I’ve come to learn that I am a huge space geek. I find myself always following the latest NASA findings and I’ve subscribed to at least 10 SpaceX Youtube channels. I get goosebumps from this quote: “Do not go gentle into that good night; Old age should burn and rave at close of day. Rage, rage against the dying of the light” (10 points if you can guess the movie). Recently I’ve finished the book ‘The Universe In Your Hand’. A wonderful account of our universe through past, present and the future. Some things were absolutely mind blowing (for example, in the quantum world everything has an exact pair, which opens ups a theory that there could be a parallel universe… Yes there could be two of you, or me or your crazy neighbour… Delightful!). The book has some fascinating insights, such as if you filled a 1-meter cubed box with sand and filled an entire football field with those boxes, each granule of sand would represent how many stars we have in our ‘known’ galaxy. Or, if the sun were a large watermelon, earth would lie 45 meters away and you would need a magnifying glass to see it! Anyway, great read if you’re a space nerd and I highly recommend it, despite some of the mind-bending facts.

Off we trundled into the dead of night. Eventually we arrived at the observation post and shuffled into a wooden cabin where our local resident astronomer gave us a rundown on what we would be doing, what we would be seeing and – most importantly – the history of star observation dating back all the way to Greek times. According to our local enthusiast, the ancient Greeks could see as far as 7 celestial planets, meaning they could see the Sun, the Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus and Saturn. It was interesting to learn that these were all given days of the week. For example: Thursday is Thor’s day which is the Supreme Greek God of everything – and Jupiter. Jupiter is by far the brightest and biggest star we can see with the naked eye so it’s no wonder the ancient Greeks looked upon him in awe. Here’s some more on the days if you’re interested. Today we can see as far as the Oort cloud, which is some 3 light years away (30 trillion km’s away). After our prep talk we grabbed some warm coffee, blankets and snacks and prepared ourselves for the cold night. Beaming with excitement we all gathered around a warm dull fire to listen intently to our star guide. He whipped out a laser pointer and started pointing at the stars. You see that one over there? That’s the Southern Cross. How do we know? Well glance ever so slightly to the right. See those two beaming stars perpendicular to each other? The Llama eyes? Those will always point in the direction the Southern Cross. We sat in silence gawking at the stories he told. Onward he went pointing out Scorpio, Virgo, Libra and Corona Borealis. It requires a bit of imagination to see how the constellations are formed in the sky and who knows how on this earth the Greeks were able to make out what we were looking at today. Next we armed the telescopes and aimed them at various points in the sky. Now I’ll be honest, most of the things we saw through the telescope were just more collections of stars and nebulas. Yes quite the site to behold, but nothing special for the untrained eye. However the most mind blowing and spectacular moment was when we got to see Jupiter and Saturn in all their glory – up close and personal. There they were as clear as day. Jupiter with its bright burnt red hues and massive dust storm. Saturn with its trademark rings. Amazing. So distinct. I can only imagine how the first humans had felt when they laid their eyes on these distant beings. We left with many questions still to be answered. What is a black hole and why can’t we see it, what is string theory? How many galaxies are there, and most importantly, what do Sheldon and Leonard do exactly in the Big Bang Theory…?

The next day we woke early to cycle Valle de la Luna (or Moon Valley). A place so remote and desolate that one can be forgiven for thinking it’s not part of mother earth. The rock formations, dunes and cracked lakes provide the perfect scene for an Apollo mission or two. We grabbed our bikes and cycled 30kms to the entrance of this vast expanse. It was early, so the heat wasn’t incapacitating… yet. Before us lay white craters of salt, rusty red rock cliffs and sand dunes for as far as the eye could see. We were definitely on another planet. The deep blue of the sky contrasted perfectly with burnt oranges and dark grey dust. Not a living creature or plant in site. Not even a coke bottle or a walker texas ranger. Eventually we came across our first lake, which was drier than Cape Town in 2018. The massive cracks forming like wrinkles in mother earth’s skin. We promptly jumped on them with our bikes to experience riding on a dead old lake. Onward we slogged up never ending hills, our bottoms taking the majority of the brunt. We seemed to be the only ones mad enough to do the moon on bike. Everyone else seemed to be driving about in moon buggies. Oh well nothing like a bit of exercise to get the heart pumping we thought. Being overly ambitious thinking we would do the Moon Valley (60km round trip) plus the Piedra del Coyote for sunset (another 30kms return) we ventured to the end of the park. A rather uninspiring rock formation awaited us in the sweltering heat. What had we done?

Slogging on we made it back to the hostel and collapsed from overexertion. No way in hell were we going to do the other 30kms that evening. Opting rather for some time lapse sunsets instead, we returned to our bikes. Our arses had had enough for one day. So instead, we prepared ourselves for our next chapter… The famous Salar de Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia!


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